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It’s been a tough spring for ESPN.  They laid off 100 anchors, reporters, analysts and production staffers.  Then The Walt Disney Company announced that operating income at its media division suffered a 3 percent decline because of ESPN’s declining subscriber base and higher programming costs.

And to add insult to injury, the former ESPN analyst Jason Whitlock published a widely discussed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that ESPN has lost its mojo because it succumbed to political correctness and started to lean left.

This confluence of events spotlighted an ongoing debate about whether ESPN has become a liberal network, with most of the mainstream media averring that, no, it certainly is not, and the Right acerbically responding that left-leaning reporters wouldn’t recognize media bias if a “Resistance” poster fell on their head.  (For what it’s worth, Sporting News reported that 60 percent of TV sports fans believe that ESPN lean left, compared to only three percent who believe it leans right.)

The debate over ESPN is just the latest in a series of episodes demonstrating the increasing politicalization of sports.  There was San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the national anthem.  There was the berating of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for having a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker.   There was the refusal of some New England Patriots players to go to the White House and be honored by President Trump.  Before that there was the support of the Black Lives Matter movement by many of the NBA’s most prominent players.

When we’re talking about politics in sport, it’s important to point out that we’re not talking about politics as it was understood for the first two hundred years of the Republic.   For centuries the important political questions concerned the distribution of the nation’s wealth – who gets what. But politics today is increasingly defined as identity politics, or the respect paid to people who consider themselves part of vulnerable population, which is essentially everyone who’s not a straight white male.

Consider the case against ESPN – it has nothing to do with interest politics like healthcare reform, international trade, or infrastructure spending, and everything to do with identity.  Among the bill of particulars: they gave a heroism award to Caitlin Jenner for publicly transitioning to female; they played up Michael Sam as the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL; they fired Curt Schilling for tweeting (rather crudely) in favor of North Carolina’s “bathroom” law.

The same is true in sports in general.  No one in sports gets in trouble for having opinions about the budget deficit or taxes (although I’m sure that athletes definitely have opinions about taxes since they are among the most highly compensated people in America).  No, where players and commentators trip up is by addressing issues of gender, race and sexuality.

Sportswriters and social media enforcers make life tough for athletes, who are in no position to navigate the complicated world of identity politics.  Many commentators yearn for the golden age of sports activism in the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War and African American Olympic runners raised their fists in “Black Power” solutes when receiving their medals.

According to this narrative, Michael Jordan is a corporate lackey because he declined to take political stands, allegedly remarking that “Republicans buy sneakers too” (although has denied this and there is no proof that he ever did say it.)  This is another example of the extra burden that is put on African Americans that white athletes easily avoid. No one ever gives Larry Bird a hard time for not popping off about Indiana rural poverty.

When commentators say they want athletes to speak out more, what they are really saying is that they want them to articulate positions that they, the commentators, support.  They falsely assume that everyone will conform to stereotypes: that all African Americans are democrats or all women are feminists.  Yet Caitlyn Jenner is a vocal Republican and Charles Barkley spoke approvingly of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.  There were no media accolades when former tennis great Margaret Court spoke out against gay marriage.  If every athlete honestly started offering political opinions I can promise you the media would be appalled at what they heard.

Count me among those sports fans who prefer to root for my teams as a mild form of escapism.  If politics permeates every other aspect of our lives, is it too much to ask for a couple of hours where I can commune with my fellow sports fans regardless of their political opinions?

What’s particularly surprising about this issue is that many sports writers think it’s a good idea for athletes, teams and leagues to voice opinions that alienate their core audience: older white men.  What a good business model!  And for what?  The chances that I will change my mind on an issue because of something a basketball player says are about as likely that I will do so after a Facebook friend post a snide meme.    I can unfollow over-opinionated friend on Facebook, just as I can change the channel whenever an athlete gets under my skin in an interview. Please guys, save the politics for the ballot box.

 

 

 

1967Bos

Last Friday, April 14 was the 50th anniversary of the most important baseball game of my life.  In 1967 I was a seventh grader with an extremely loose affinity for the Red Sox (or as my father called them, “The Red Flops”).  Entering the season I made the calculated decision that I was either going to start being a real fan by following them closely, or skip the whole notion of caring about baseball.

April 14, 1967 was a beautiful spring day, so when I got home from school I went outside, sat on the lawn and listened to the game on my transistor radio.  (Television was not an option because only weekend games were regularly shown on TV back in those three-channel days.)

To my surprise, Billy Rohr, the Sox’ 21-year-old rookie, was pitching a no-hitter in his first start, out-dueling the great Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium.  Not only were the Red Sox on the verge of a no-hitter in the first baseball game that I had affirmatively sought out on my own, but the hero was just a kid closer to my age than to White Ford’s.

Rohr was still pitching a nohitter with one out in the ninth when this happened:

Even today that catch by Carl Yastrzemski brings tears to my eyes.  To get the full impact you also need to listen to the play-by-play call by the Red Sox announcer Ken Coleman:

I’ve heard the call so many times over the years that I have it memorized: “Fly ball to deep left,  Yastrzemski’s going hard.  Way back, way back, and he dives and makes a TREMENDOUS catch.”  Yaz saved the no-hitter for only a short while because with two outs in the ninth Yankees catcher Elston Howard hit a soft single into left field and Rohr had to settle for a one-hit shut-out in his baseball debut.

Of course I was disappointed that Rohr lost his no-hitter and I was further disappointed that this performance proved to be a freak event, with Rohr sent back to the minors a month or two later after inconsistent pitching, never to play for the Sox again.   But I was hooked on the Red Sox as surely as if they had plunged a syringe full of baseball heroin into my arm.

For the rest of the summer I followed the Sox avidly, watching on TV when I could, listening on the radio when I couldn’t.  I bought dozens of sports and baseball magazines (the 1960’s equivalent of Deadspin) and dreamed of a day when I too would wear the carmine hose.  That dream, not surprisingly came to a crashing end the next year when I tried out for my junior high school baseball team and saw that the other kids were so much better that I didn’t even look at the posted list of those who had made the first cut.

No, my baseball passion would be solely as a fan.  And I don’t use the word “passion” carelessly.  My ardor for the 1967 Red Sox surpassed the feelings I had for any member of the opposite sex. This was the first time I had a rooting interest in anything besides myself. Since then I have become emotionally invested in other teams, numerous political figures, and too many Oscar ceremonies to mention; that externally directed fandom began with this team.

What a year 1967 was.  The Sox had been league doormats for years, finishing next-to-last in 1966 and playing to sparse crowds.  Indeed, one game in 1965 had been attended by fewer than 500 hardy souls and even on Opening Day 1967 only 8,000 people showed up.

But suddenly, with a few veterans coming into their own, a handful of exciting rookies, and a hard-ass manager who made them hustle, they were competitive.   That early Billy Rohr game was harbinger of thrills to come.

I remember that summer as one long blur of watching or listening to the Red Sox, although I must have done something else that year.  I was just 13, so only partly employed at my parents’ business and I must have spent a lot of time doing early-teen things.  God knows I had no scheduled improvement programs to attend so I must have been out a lot riding my bike or swimming at the municipal pool or exploring the nearby woods.  But my only memories concern baseball.

Like, how we were on the ferry returning from Nantucket when they won their tenth straight game on the road and everyone on the vessel was listening on the radio.  And seeing on TV the next morning that 15,000 fans had mobbed their plane at Logan Airport when they touched down at 2:00 a.m. — more fans that had greeted even the Beatles.

In 1967, the country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam war but the Sox became a unifying force in New England.  The players themselves were still subject to the draft, although most found a way to get into the National Guard, which required them to periodically go off for two-week tours of duty — pennant race or not.

My Red Sox memories also remind me how much time I spent with my cousins at the homes of my aunts and uncles; so many big Red Sox big moments happened when I was watching the TV at their places.  I was at my Aunt Jean’s house the night Jose Tartabull threw out the White Sox’ Ken Berry at home plate in the ninth inning to end the game.

I was staying at my Uncle Carl’s during the fateful weekend the Angels came to town and 22-year-old Tony Conigliaro ended up sprawled in the dirt with a broken cheekbone and a career cut short after a Jack Hamilton fastball hit him square in the face.  That was a tragedy, but just the night before the Sox had roared back from a 8-0 deficit to beat the Angels.

(Here’s a quick tribute to Tony C)

The Sox always seemed to be winning the dramatic games  and the sportswriters started calling them the “Cardiac Kids,” because they gave us all heart attacks.  And they really were kids.  Yaz, the elder statesman of the team, was 27 years old and the rest of the crew were even younger.

And Yaz was an incredible hero, making fantastic catches and timely home runs.  He won the Triple Crown that year and even though I sometimes can’t remember my own cell phone number I can still summon up the stats at will: 44 home runs, .326 batting average, 121 RBIs.

(here’s a quick summary of Yaz’ career)

The 1967 season was one of the all-time great pennant races.  Back when there were no play-offs and only one team got into the post-season, four teams (the Red Sox, White Sox, Twins and Tgers) battled down to the wire, with three in the running on the final day of the season.

On that fateful Sunday I was once again at my Aunt Jean’s house, watching the game in her basement rec room.  I don’t remember all the details but have never forgotten the key points of the game. The Sox’ Cy Young-winning pitcher Jim Lonborg throwing a complete game and sparking the game-winning rally by bunting his way on base (yeah, that’s when the pitcher’s batted).  Yaz throwing out Tony Oliva at second base as he tried to stretch a single into a double.  And the soft pop-up that landed in Rico Petrocelli’s glove to end the game and induced everyone in the stands to rush onto the field in a wild celebration.

When the Tigers lost later that night the Sox were in the World Series, which also turned out to be a nail-biter.  Their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, were a better team so just forcing them to a seventh game before ultimately succumbing was a moral victory.

When the season was over the local TV station produced a special called “The Impossible Dream,” which included cheesy doggerel narration and highlight clips (“This is really a love story/An affair ‘twixt a town and a team/A town that had waited and waited/For what seemed an impossible dream.”)   The excerpts below (which include an New England Telephone ad promoting an extra house phone) provide a real artifact of prehistoric TV production values, but will still bring a lump in the throat to any New Englander over 60.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, they turned the TV special into an LP, which, by the way, I still own and still play on special occasions when I need a good cry:

In the past fifty years the Red Sox have provided a lot of heartache and thrills.  They have been an organizing framework for my life, more closely tied to the passage of time than the seasons themselves.  They have been generational glue in or family — the one thing that parents, grandparents and kids care about. And it all begins with that “Impossible Dream” season 50 years ago.

 

roger-goodell

The long football season comes to an end on Sunday with the annual nacho-fueled spectacle that is the Super Bowl.  It’s been a tough year for the NFL and its declining ratings, which means that it’s been a tough year for network television, which relies on the appeal of live viewing events to ward off cord-cutting.

The ratings decline was particularly severe in the beginning of the season when viewing declined by double-digit percentages.  Everyone had an opinion on this phenomenon, my own being that it was caused by an over-saturation of football, a lot of mediocre games, and a lack of positive story lines following the retirement of Peyton Manning, the suspension of Tom Brady and the underwhelming performance of other high-profile quarterbacks.

Of course anything as highly visible as pro football quickly becomes a huge target upon which we act out our personal obsessions, and in a white hot election year, the NFL quickly became tangled up in the political correctness debate, thanks to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.

I don’t think that the Kaepernick controversy actually eroded football viewing but it significantly infuriated many of the game’s most important constituencies and wiped out decades of effort by the league to wrap itself in the flag.  It got to a point where the right-wing Drudge Report was actively gloating each week about low NFL ratings.   When a lot of conservative white guys are actively rooting for your ratings to go down, you’re in a bad place if you’re a major sports league.

For its part, the NFL tried to blame the ratings slump on the election, the theory being, I suppose, that fans were out attending Donald Trump rallies on Sundays instead of staying home to watch football.   They claimed vindication of a sorts when it turned out that ratings were “only” down two percent in the six weeks after the election.    (Personally I think that it wasn’t until the final third of the season that the interesting storylines emerged.)

Better still for the NFL have been the play-offs.  When there was a good game the fans watched.  When the games stunk they didn’t.  For example, the thrilling Cowboys-Packers game on January 15, featuring two high-profile quarterbacks and a down-to-the-wire victory, was the most-watched NFL divisional play-off game ever.

For me, though, the relevant question is not why football ratings slumped this year but why they’ve soaring for the past few years in the first place?  In the last decade, football went from being a very popular sport to a hugely popular one.  For years and years the final episode of “M.A.S.H.” reigned supreme as the most-watched broadcast of all time, but since 2010 the Super Bowl has broken that record seven straight times.

And what’s particularly surprising about this rise in popularity is that it occurred just as we were coming to terms with the human cost of the concussions and other injuries inflicted on the players for our enjoyment.  Far from being turned off by literally watching fellow human beings beat their brains to mush, the American public actually embraced the sport even more enthusiastically.

For football to become more popular it had to expand its appeal beyond existing fans and convert casual viewers to regular ones.  It was able to do this via the rise in fantasy sports and online gambling, which gave fans a reason to watch more games with more intensity.  Even more important was the emergence of a new generation of charismatic quarterbacks who became the face of the league in the same way that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan revived the fortunes of the NBA in the 1980s.

In other words, the biggest threat to football’s long-term health isn’t cord-cutting but the poor quality of quarterbacks coming out of college.  Because college football is increasingly dominated by spread offenses and no-huddle play, recent QB prospects are not prepared to lead an NFL offense.  With Manning retired and Brady, Aaron Rogers, Tony Romo and Drew Brees growing long in the tooth, the NFL has been unable to nurture a new generation of appealing superstars.

There will be one more chance to check-in on the health of the NFL this year.  If the Super Bowl sets yet another record for viewership this year, the league will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that football remains hugely popular despite the hiccups in the beginning of the season.  And with much of the nation wondering whether Tom Brady will be in a position to smash the Lombardi trophy into the face of Commissioner Roger Goodell, that might just happen.

 

 

 

Note: This post was originally published on September 29, 2011 (the day after a wrenching Red Sox loss that kept them out of the play-offs), on a different blog site that is now out of business. I’m reposting it here so that it will have a more permanent home.

Red Sox World Series

Although it always comes when predicted, the end of a baseball season is nevertheless surprisingly unexpected and shocking in its finality. It’s like the long-anticipated death of a elderly grandparent or dropping off a child at college – you know it’s coming but can’t be emotionally prepared for the void that opens afterward.

This year, the end of the season was even more brutal that usual for Red Sox fans. After a month-long collapse, it appeared that the Sox might eke out a play-off spot in the last game of the season after all. But in a sudden reversal, the odds of which were statistically infinitesimal (see: http://bit.ly/qP5rFd) the Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon coughed up the game with the two outs in the ninth and almost simultaneously the Rays rallied from a 7-0 deficit to beat the Yankees and vault over the Sox into the play-offs.

My own feelings of loss at the end of the season are magnified today because, for the first time in decades, I’ve been watching the Red Sox every night on my living room TV. Thanks to the miracle of Apple TV and MLB.com, I’ve been streaming the games onto my HDTV. In a flashback to my childhood, I had developed the inflexible routine of turning on the games after dinner and sticking with them for three hours. Now, with one swing of the bat, all that is over. No more Jerry Remy, Don Orsillo or Heidi Watney.

I watched so much baseball this summer that I began to question my priorities. Why was I sitting in that chair, night after night, watching some guy throw a small ball, again and again, to another guy?   Why was I so despondent at the losses and so euphoric at the wins? Was there really no more productive use of my time? The games didn’t truly matter to me in the way that family or work do, but they created the same intense response – and on a nightly basis too.

And why do we root for a team anyway? As the devoted Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld observed, we’re basically rooting for laundry because the players have no direct association with the cities they represent and move from team to team anyway.

On my Facebook page last night, I wrote “Human existence is tragic, futile, miraculous and joyful. Which is why we follow baseball — for the catharsis.” Catharsis is “the purging of the emotions or relieving of tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.” But sports provides an even deeper catharsis that the arts, because the outcome of a play, an opera or a ballet is pre-ordained. There is a narrative arc that is determined by the creator and once set it stone it will not change; no matter how many times you see a play it will always end the same way; but in sports, the outcome is never truly known. We accept freakish and implausible endings in sports that we would never believe in the arts. That’s why sports are a truer reflection of life: because anything can happen.

It’s hard to unpack the emotional baggage that comes from rooting for a team, but for me there is the fact that the Red Sox are the one constant in my life. As a little boy I went to Fenway Park with my parents – always the most exciting night of the summer.  As a teen I went there with friends and girlfriends. I brought my wife there, and then in a proud moment introduced my own son to Fenway Park. One of the highlights of my life was attending the 2007 World Series there. Strangers live in my childhood home, my church has been torn down and my elementary school has been converted into condominiums, but Fenway endures in all the key essentials.

Baseball brings out the best and worst in people. It’s a cliché, but I love seeing fathers playing catch with their young sons and daughters. The ball is small so baseball comes earlier to kids than football or basketball. In our small town of 16,000 people, there are 1,000 Little League and Babe Ruth participants, making baseball one of the few common experiences in our community. And when a kid becomes a fan, baseball becomes the lingua franca of a family. However estranged you may become when your kids grow up, you’ll always have baseball to bridge the gap. I pity those families (and I mean that literally) in which people root for different teams. I’d hate to be on this emotional rollercoaster alone.

On the other hand, sports does bring out a dark side. And I don’t mean just the riots that occur after championship games.   I mean the way fans turn on players who have disappointed them.   A batter who strikes out or a pitcher who gives up a run must have a character flaw. No guts, doesn’t care, a quitter and all other allegations of moral turpitude. No one exemplifies this more than The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, who turns on players with a viciousness that makes you wonder why anyone would want to play in Boston.

Shaughnessy aside, even on a day like this, after a troubled night’s sleep and a deep sadness that the season is done, I remain grateful that I was born into Red Sox Nation. To have something to care about so passionately is a great gift. How passionately? Here are three somewhat embarrassing confidences:

  • I freely admit to everyone that the happiest day of my life was October 28, 2004, the night the Sox won the World Series. And I say this as a person who has witnessed the birth of his son and celebrated a very happy wedding day. Those other days are obviously more important to me in the long run, but for sheer exhilaration and joy, nothing beats the World Series win.  I’m pretty sure my wife and son understand.
  • Under my bed is a plastic bag containing the clothes (including underwear and socks) that I wore on the aforementioned October 28, 2004. They have only been disturbed once, when I wore them again the night the Sox won the 2007 World Series. If they don’t’ disintegrate first, I hope to wear them a couple more times.
  • The last time I sobbed uncontrollably was after a Red Sox game – a game that they won! This was Game Five of the 1986 championship series versus the Angles, when, with the Red Sox facing elimination in the ninth inning, Dave Henderson hit a two-out, two-strike home run that tied the score. The tension was unbearable as the Angels threatened to score again and again in extra innings. When the Sox finally did win that game, I went into the bathroom, closed the door and burst into tears of relief. I never cried so hard at a funeral.

Every October I swear I will take a break and not care as much next year, but inevitably I get sucked back in during the spring. The days are short now and the cold is coming. No more Red Sox this year. It’s all over but the recriminations and the purging of a once-proud team. Maybe last night’s horrible loss will be good for the team in the long-run, if it drives away the fans who signed on after 2004. In any event, I’ve had enough of a catharsis for now. I need some rest.

Happy-Tom-Brady

At my age it’s damn embarrassing to have to admit that you’re gaga over a professional athlete but there’s no getting around it, my relationship to Tom Brady is analogous to a teen girl and Taylor Swift — without the crying.  In fact, I had the recent epiphany that Brady is my favorite athlete of all time, which is saying a lot considering that I grew up outside of Boston, where Sports Gods grow on trees.  Could anyone really supplant Yaz, the architect of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox team that turned me into a lifelong baseball fan?  Or Bobby Orr and Larry Bird, whose highlight reels of grace and sheer athleticism can still reduce me to tears? Or Normar Garciaparra, whose greatness at shortstop coincided with my own son’s interest in baseball, forever linking our family’s multi-generational love of the Red Sox?  I think so, this is one time when reason triumphs over nostalgia.

To make the Brady-worship even more unlikely, I don’t even LIKE football, which is a brutal, self-important, flag-waving, militaristic, bullying enterprise.  I hate the idea that we are watching men literally bash their brains out for our enjoyment and have stated on more than one occasion that when Brady retires, football will be dead to me. And what’s a little bit sad is that my life as a “fan” will probably die when Brady retires.  How likely is it that a young new superstar of this magnitude will arrive on the scene to delight me into my sentience?

It’s an odd business making heroes out of athletes.  Most of them are selfish, monomaniacal pinheads.  Yet we invest our hopes and dreams in them. We admire our heroes because they embody a higher level of accomplishment than we mere mortals, and athletes, like singers and actors, are performers whose excellence is acted out in public and thereby are disproportionately worshiped relative to their contributions to society.  Their physical achievements in running or throwing a ball are so astounding that they become a metaphor for all the other attributes of human experience.  We can’t really admire the world’s greatest accountant because we can’t see him in action, but athletes are right out there in the open, failing, bouncing back, and achieving for us all to observe and judge.

brady-super-bowl

But Brady is more than a great athlete – he’s a supernova across many areas.  Yaz, Orr, and Bird were tremendous on the field, ice and court, but they were all inarticulate, introverted and uncharismatic in regular life.  Not so with Brady.  Here are some of the reasons he ascends to the top pantheon of sports gods:

His tremendous sports accomplishments.  Based on what he’s done on the field alone, he’d be probably still be my top sports hero.  He’s got those twelve division titles and three Super Bowl championships, and could easily have had two more rings except for a couple of freak plays by the NY Giants.  In most statistical categories he ranks as the fifth or sixth more productive QB of all time, and those rankings will presumably improve over time.  Whether or not he’s the greatest QB ever (which I’d argue yes), he’s definitely in the top five.  Think about that.  How rare is it to be a top five athlete in any sport?

But the stats don’t tell the whole story.  Brady is one of the most thrilling quarterbacks of all time, with 33 Q4 comebacks and 44 game winning drives.    With Brady on the field, it’s always possible the Patriots will come roaring back.  I saw this in person myself on December 29, 2002, a must-win game against the Dolphins that should be legendary but is now widely forgotten.  It was the last game of the season and the Pats needed a win to advance to the playoffs.  With 5 minutes left, Miami kicked a field goal to go ahead 24-13.  On the next drive, Brady marched them down the field to score a TD and two-point conversion to pull within three; the Pats recovered the onside kick and Brady got them close enough so that Adam Vinetieri could kick a field goal.  Then in overtime he got them close enough to get a game-winning field goal.  I’ve never gotten over the brilliance of those three drives.  Except for those of us who were there at Gillette Stadium, no one really remembers that game because a few hours later, the Jets beat the Packers to tie the Pats in the standing and advance to the playoffs.  The point is, though, that when the season was on the line, a very young Brady turned in a tremendous performance and gave his team another shot at a title.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

On rare occasions I’ll watch other teams on TV and I always feel sorry for their fans because instead of Brady they have inferior, less capable QBs: guys who take 20 seconds to get a snap off when there’s only 50 second left on the clock, or who throw a game-killing interception, or who aren’t smart enough to read a blitz or gain a third-and-short first down with a quarterback sneak.

His personal life.  Now this is where Brady really separates himself from the other athletic superstars and moves into fantasy-land.  I really have no idea what kind of marriages Yaz, Bird and Orr had, but I do know that none of them married a super-model.  You have to go back to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to find a sports marriage with more firepower than Brady’s, and Joe had already retired when he met Marilyn.  What’s impressive is not just that Brady married a gorgeous woman, it’s that he married someone who is, like him, at the very top of her profession. Gisele actually out-earns Brady, making theirs a marriage of equals, rare among sports figures at any level.  And by all accounts it’s a happy marriage, also rare among celebrity pairings. (I particularly love Gisele’s cute Instagram messages).

tom-brady-gisele-bundchen-honeymoon-10

We shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is to function at the very apex of celebrity culture in a world of paparazzi, TMZ, social media, and 24-hour news networks.  Yet he seems to thrive in it, gliding serenely from game to home to practice with the cameras constantly on him.

And who cannot be impressed with the way Tom and Gisele support each other, most famously after Super Bowl XLVI, when Brady’s receivers let him down and they lost so disappointingly to the Giants again.  Heckled by boorish Giants fans after the game, Gisele turned on them and retorted  “You’ve to catch the ball when you’re supposed to catch the ball. My husband cannot f**king throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.”  I’d like to think that my own wife would have my back like that under similar circumstances.  

 The Cinderella story.  Perhaps even more amazing than Brady’s career is that it almost didn’t happen at all.  He was a back-up quarterback at Michigan as a freshman and sophomore, then had to compete with another future NFL quarterback, Drew Henson, as a junior and senior before gaining the starting spot in the last half of his senior year.  He was drafted 199th by the Patriots in the sixth round and started his career as the fourth backup to the then-famous Drew Bledsoe.

Bledsoe was one of those QBs that conventional coaches and unimaginative fans like – sort of a poor man’s Peyton Manning: tall, commanding, great passing skills, looks great but not a winner.  If he hadn’t been injured in the second game of the 2001 season Brady might never have played at all.  And here’s where you have to credit Bill Belichick.  When Bledsoe was well enough to play again, he stuck with the young, inexperienced Brady, who at the time didn’t have the big QB numbers, but somehow found a way to win.  With Brady at the helm, the Patriots went on to win their first Super Bowl and Bledsoe would be traded to the Bills at the end of the season.

brady and bledsoe

 (Bledsoe doing chart work for Brady)

This early lack of respect for his skills has fueled Brady’s determination to show the world they were wrong about them.  And it makes the rest of us wonder about the role of luck in our lives.  If Bledsoe hadn’t been injured, Brady might never have gotten a chance to show what he was capable of.  How many other great talents are there in the arts and sports world who never get discovered?  Or closer to home, what about great men and women who’d make fantastic spouses but never get the chance, or kids who never find the right teacher to inspire them?  You don’t really like to think too hard about the role that chance and randomness play in our lives.

Brady as a Teammate:  Let’s start with his team-friendly contract Brady makes a lot of money but he structured his deal so that the Patriots would have more available cash to sign free agents and keep their star players.  For most athletes, squeezing the last dollar out of their teams has always been their highest priority, as if a $225 million contract instead of one for $175 million will improve their quality of life.  For many it’s an ego thing, where it’s important to make the most on the team or in the sport.  For Brady, it’s more important to win.  He also seems to understand that you can more money with endorsements on a winning team, so that for the overall bottom line, winning is the best route to the ultimate total income paycheck.  And after listening to David Ortiz, Carlton Fisk and dozens of other Red Sox players complain about thir contracts, it’s such a relief knowing that Brady doesn’t threaten to leave for an extra couple million dollars a year.

Brady has also emerged as a team leader who prods, cajoles and inspires his teammates to higher achievement.  In sports writing it’s always hard to tell where solid reporting ends and hagiography begins, but the persistent stories about Brady being a great teammate suggests they contain more than an element of truth.  Brady is just one of the guys, they say; he doesn’t bristle when Belichick criticizes his performance in team meetings; he practices harder than anyone else; he treats every player on the team – from the superstar to the practice scrub – with respect; he gets so fired up when his teammates make a great play that he runs down the field  to head-butt him; he has an amazing work ethic and doesn’t ask anything of his teammates that he isn’t willing to do himself.

Brady as a Personality.  It all might be an act, and if it is, I appreciate the effort that’s gone into shaping Brady’s image as a modest, self-effacing guy.  From the moment he stepped in from Bledsoe, Brady’s been under a microscope and he’s only faltered once: when trying to show that he was an ordinary guy, he told CG Magazine that he searched for Internet porn like everyone else.  Since then, he’s kept his nose clean, but unlike that disciplined automaton Derek Jeter, who’s never said anything interesting, Brady at least displays a personality.  He’s passionate on the field, self-deprecating in interviews, and generally good humored (here he is on Funny or Die and in his DailyMVP commercial: “Boomshackalacka”).

Tom Brady on to 2015

As if this isn’t enough, Brady has become a social media master, especially on Facebook.  Again, maybe he’s hired a social media genius, but the personality that comes through is fun and normal.  He’s definitely working hard to show that he’s not full of himself so the posts are remarkably self-effacing.  There’s the video of him lumbering down the field to the Chariots of Fire theme song (see below), there are the GIFs of him trying to high-five unresponsive teammates, the photo of him on the film set of TED 2, the call-outs to the Celtics and the San Francisco Giants, his Ugg ad with his mom and another Ugg ad with his dad (see below). And then of course, there’s his resume out of college, a reminder that Brady once thought he wouldn’t have a job in football and might need to tout his internship at Merrill Lynch.

Tom_Brady_resume

So now we head to another play-off season.  With two more wins Brady will be in the Super Bowl for the sixth time, with a shot at a fourth championship.  Of course play-off football is a crapshoot.  They Pats were lucky to win in 2002 and unlucky to loose in 2008 so everything probably evens out over time.  The point is that Brady has consistently taken the Patriots into the play-offs and given them a chance at winning it all.  You can’t help but take it for granted but you never should.  But if the Pats manage to win it all this year, Brady will be considered the greatest QB of all time and no one will take him for granted again.

To conclude, here are some great Tom Brady videos:

 

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

By almost every measure, NBC had a successful Winter Olympics.  Its average prime-time viewership — 21.4 million people — was less than for the mostly live coverage from Vancouver four years ago, but up 6% over the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, which were also on tape delay.

More remarkably, NBC won every night of the 2014 Olympics compared to 14 of 17 in 2010 and eight of 17 in Turin. NBC also beat the combined broadcast competition (ABC, CBS and Fox) by 45% in viewership.

Of course, prime-time broadcast doesn’t tell the whole story, as NBC has been at pains to point out. Millions more watched events at various times throughout the day on NBC Sports Network, USA Network, CNBC and MSNBC.  And then there were the additional millions who watched on computers, tablets and smartphones.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about NBC’s achievement is that with all the prime-time events seen on a tape-delayed basis, the winners could easily have been known hours before the broadcast.  There was a time within the living memory of many readers when NBC (and ABC before them) tried to keep Olympics results under wraps.  Sometimes news of very high profile contests, such as the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding skate-off of 1994, would filter back through word of mouth, but generally viewers who sat down to watch the Games in the pre-Internet era had no idea who the winners and losers were.

But in today’s age of instant communication and social media overload, there’s no way to keep the winners secret.  Brian Williams himself announced the results during “The NBC Nightly News.” And yet people still watched the prime-time broadcast in droves.

This is not the first time that anxieties about the impact of TV-related technology have been overblown.  Remember the fear that TiVo and DVRs would demolish ad-supported TV by letting everyone fast-forward through the commercials?  Turns out DVRs lead to more viewing, and fast-forwarding is offset by the number of new viewers who actually watch the ads.  Remember how Internet streaming was going to undercut traditional television?  Turns out streaming helps build interest in TV programs, leading to record viewing levels.

It now seems clear that social media chatter about winners and losers is no threat to the Olympics.  In fact, the role of social media in general, especially Twitter, seems vastly overblown.  Only 10% to 15% of Americans even have Twitter accounts, and only a percentage of them are active at any one time, so the amount of spoiling that can take place on Twitter is pretty small.

The bigger threat from spoiling comes from traditional news organizations like The New York Times or CNN, which send out news alerts to subscribers.  For every one Olympics result I saw on Twitter, I received about 20 email notifications from the various news outlets I follow.  Yet everyone wants to talk about the impact of social media, while no one wants to discuss the impact of the boring old New York Times.

Spoilers have limited impact on Olympic viewing anyway, because the Games are not really a sporting event.  They’re produced by NBC Sports and feature physical contests with winners and losers  — but, except for hockey, don’t offer the essence of a sports broadcast.  And how do we know that?  Because the audience is predominantly female.  The Olympics has turned into the best-produced, most expensive reality show in the history of television.  With all its sob stories, heroes and villains, it almost doesn’t really matter who wins, or whether the results are known ahead of time.

The other thing that doesn’t seem to have undercut Olympic TV viewing is Internet streaming.  As NBC will be happy to tell you, the Olympics were a multiplatform effort — but I’m guessing the amount of streaming, like the amount of social media, is somewhat exaggerated.  Even the results for big-ticket events — the men’s hockey semifinal between the U.S. and Canada, which was said to have been streamed by 2.1 million viewers — were not that impressive.

Those 2.1 million streamers should not be equated to 2.1 million TV viewers as measured by Nielsen.  Nielsen produces an average audience metric (that is, the average number of people watching at any one time).  To get an equivalent Nielsen number for the game, you’d have to take the 65 million streamed minutes and divide by the length of the event (say, 90 minutes); this would produce an average audience of 722,000, which is not bad for a midday TV show, but only a fraction of the prime-time broadcast.

Another indication of the minimal impact of the digital offerings is their level of ad support.  NBC Sports sold just $50 million in digital ads for the Sochi Olympics, far below the $800 million in national TV ad sales for the Games.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if it took some creative accounting to get the total as high as $50 million.

In any event, despite all the technological advances, we still largely experience the Olympics the same way we have for generations: watching a highly curated version on the TV set.  This is good news for NBC as we head to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

Cedric Killings

For all the alarm about cord-cutters, mobile viewers, Aereo, Netflix, fast-forwarding and the other perceived challenges to television, the broadcast industry’s biggest threat may be hiding in plain sight: the country’s unsustainable fixation with football.

Football is the single most important programming component of the television schedule.  The upcoming Super Bowl will be — by far — the most watched show of the year, and it could very well set the record as the most watched program in television history. On weeks when NBC airs “Sunday Night Football,” the network routinely wins the week; on weeks when it doesn’t, not so much.  Football is an important reason that ESPN can command the highest carriage fees in the industry.  The lack of football is the reason that ABC has a prime-time audience that’s 60% female.

And the importance of football goes beyond the sheer number of its viewers. It has the right kind of viewers – those elusive young men who can’t be easily enticed to watch prime-time programming.  Better yet, because football is primarily watched live, there is no skipping through the commercials.

So no wonder the networks are in thrall to football.  It brings huge audiences and attracts hard-to-reach consumers who actually watch the ads. And the sport seems as popular as ever.  Together, the five networks that carry the games averaged 17.4 million viewers during the 2013 regular season, higher than any regularly scheduled prime-time broadcast series except “NCIS.”

But if football is the golden goose, its immense value is threatened by a growing perception that the gridiron too closely resembles the Coliseum and that the players are basically killing each other for our pleasure.  Recent revelations about the impact of concussions and a few well-publicized suicides by former players have started to leave viewers feeling queasy and morally compromised.

And it’s not just fans.  President Obama told The New Yorker that if he had a son he wouldn’t let him play pro football, and both Brett Favre and Bob Costas have said the same thing. More crucially, suburban moms have started to push back.  The number of kids playing Pop Warner football and USA football declined 9.5% and 6.7% respectively between 2010 and 2012.  It might not be long before middle-class parents conclude that letting their sons play football is a form of child neglect.

In the 1950s, boxing held the position that football maintains today, with as many as six prime-time fights and more than 50 million regular viewers a week.  The sport eventually became overexposed, but more important, it got a reputation for corruption and brutality, especially after the prime-time death of the fighter Benny Paret in 1962.  Today boxing is a niche sport, rarely if ever seen on prime time.

Football is more firmly embedded in American culture than boxing ever was. And the fans’ connection to football goes deeper than watching the NFL on Sunday. High school and college football teams are the primary bonding agents for many small towns and university communities, and millions of fans participate in fantasy leagues or play videos games.  The sport is not going away anytime soon.

Having said that, the steady drumbeat of news about concussions has led many viewers to notice how much time is spent each game on injury timeouts, as players stand around and watch one of their recently clobbered teammates being carried off the field.  Just as baseball fans once saw – but didn’t quite comprehend — what was happening to players’ bodies during the steroids era, so too are football fans now beginning to comprehend the consequences of the injuries they have so passively observed for more than 50 years.  Nor does it really help that the dinosaur announcers who call the games, many of them ex-players from a more primitive era, routinely second-guess whether a head-to-head collision that leaves one player dazed and sprawled on the ground should really be called a penalty.

The truth is, with a fan base now sensitized to the dangers of the sport and primed to react on social media, football is far more vulnerable to a high-profile injury than it was even 30 years ago.  Back in 1985 fans were sickened when the New York Giants snapped Joe Theismann’s leg in two, but they didn’t question whether that was the way the sport needed to be.  If a similar injury — or, God forbid, a death — happened on TV today, the impact would be devastating. It would set off a firestorm of debate about what we, as a culture, are requiring of our athletes.

The NFL seems to know this, since they keep fiddling with the rules to reduce the chance of injuries.  But violence is baked into the essence of football, where play ends only when one player is thrown violently to the ground, and it’s only going to get worse as players get bigger and stronger.

The irony is that given the high cost of their NFL contracts, most if not all networks lose money on football.   If football were to go the way of bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and public executions, the networks might actually improve their bottom lines.  But the cost would be shrunken audiences and decreased prestige.   Unfortunately for them, there’s little the networks can do about this situation but hope the inevitable decline of football’s popularity happens on someone else’s watch.